Nonfiction: My Dad’s Advice

The following is something I wrote to submit to a fiction contest, and it wasn’t chosen, but actually this text is nonfiction. (The fiction part was that I was lying about it being fiction.) I don’t often like to formalize my memories and experiences such as I did below — something about the artifice of memoirs bugs me — and I prefer to write in my journal about things that have happened recently. But writing this piece below was valuable, as I think I learned something about myself as I wrote it.

My dad sat on his truck’s tailgate, and I sat next to him in our farm yard on a summer afternoon. I was about to start my senior year of college, and he’d just been fired from his sales job (fired for reasons relating to his depression, I later found out). I told him that I was intimidated by the thought of soon having to start a career and go to a job every day for the next 40 years. I asked him how he had kept going to work. He said he just did it, one day after another, to support his family. I had been hoping for a deeper answer.

I never really knew my dad. I knew him for 25 years before he was killed as a passenger in a car wreck, but I failed to get a real feeling for who he was.

I could recite the facts: when he graduated college, how he met my mom, and what jobs he worked before and after their divorce. I could name some of his habits: falling asleep in front of the TV on winter nights, taking our big, wooly dog Fritz on rides around our farm, chuckling at the lambs of his flock as they pranced and skittered. I could even tell about experiences we had together, like the time I asked him whether he had smoked cigarettes just to raise his blood pressure high enough to avoid being drafted for Vietnam. (His answer, as I recall, was, well, he really didn’t want to go.)

But somehow I never got a sense that I really knew him. And now I question whether what I wanted from him is even possible. For what does it really mean to know a person? It has been so easy to close to my mom and my friends and my wife, that maybe I just get a sense that they are familiar and present to me, and I don’t try too hard to describe what knowing them means.

But I don’t think I ever felt that same nearness, even when sitting right next to my dad. We started hugging each other on visits after he moved out of our family house — we’d never really done that before. I know the feeling of having my arms around his chest, and thinking that somehow we were kin, were using, living in, very similar bodies. Yet, I imagined him as hollow somehow — that something that was there in other people wasn’t there in him. Of course, there’s no thing to label as what a person is, in any of us — but others are more natural at seeming like there is?

When I was 25 and about to get married, I again asked for advice, this time about relationships. I had surprised him by stopping by his house on a Saturday morning. I don’t remember him giving me any guidance at all. He probably didn’t intend to push me toward finding my own answers, but perhaps my questioning, my questing, was his legacy to me.

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